A shuddering, violent exhale of breath burst from the blow hole of the bull, as his great back breached the surface and rolled under again. Close to exhaustion, he drifted a few yards and stilled his tired body. The water around him was colder, darker, and much shallower than his usual paths and harbours. The pain in his head had driven him far beyond his familiar haunts, into dark lonely seas.
The sound of the small boats above and behind him stirred him into laboured movement again. He slowly arched his back and raised his tail into the air, smashing it down onto the water’s surface to vent his frustration at their presence and efforts. Although the pulse in his head was much more subdued in these colder, eastern waters, he still had to fight the aggressive urges that swept over him. In the sixty-five years he had lived, he had been lucky to have never been hunted, although he had witnessed the pursuit once as a calf. His memories of the water turning red, his father’s screams as his side had exploded, and the thrashing slaps of his flippers as he writhed in agony had long been buried. But recently, they had surfaced again, tearing through his consciousness with renewed intensity and purpose.
Since the death of his father, whenever he had heard the mournful, grieving song his mother and aunts had sung that day, he had known to turn away and seek new seas. His new memories of humans had been good ones. They were of small boats like the ones surrounding him now, filled with people that coaxed him closer with gentle sounds, or divers drifting with him in warm blue water. He bore them no grudge.
The bull rolled onto his side, letting his flipper tower out of the water. Residual streams ran down its surface before it splashed back down. He righted himself and moved off again with deliberate flicks of his flukes. He ignored the purr from the boat motors, his echolocation telling him he was unable to go much further now. Although invisible to him in the dark murky water, he could sense the banks of the river rising out of the bed of the estuary and closing in on him. He could taste the mixture of salt and fresh water, the salinity dwindling with every move forward. The physical toll of his journey, and the extra effort needed to keep his mass buoyant in the waters of the river was draining the last of his strength. He knew he wouldn’t live much longer. He hadn’t fed during his lonely swim to the east and south.
Sergeant John Mitchell of the Metropolitan River Policing Unit circled the immense whale again, frustrated by its stubborn passage along the Thames. The small boats he had commandeered to try and force the animal back were not having the desired effect, and as he looked up, he saw that several recognisable silhouettes of the London skyline were coming into view. Largest and closest was the London Eye, the giant Catherine-wheeled tourist attraction whose elevated pods gave views stretching across the capital. But today, all eyes were looking down.
The tide was at its highest right now, but in five hours’ time, the mighty Thames would be at its lowest point. The whale would be in serious danger of becoming stranded in the shallows or even on the banks.
He glanced at the helicopters beginning to gather in the sky. The stubborn cetacean was the only news story for Londoners today. Humpback whales followed strict migration routes between the polar seas and the Caribbean. Although they were known to spend several months off the coast of southern Ireland and even western Scotland, it was a very rare and strange occurrence to see them in the North Sea or English Channel. One had never been reported in the Thames before.
The whole spectacle sickened Mitchell. If the whale was to die, which he now suspected was its reason for wandering into the estuary in the first place, the city would be able to watch it on the breakfast news, just another momentary spectacle in an otherwise boring and stagnant world. He grabbed the radio.
“Is the net ready? Over.” He spoke so quietly it was as if he was asking only himself.
There was only a second’s pause before the crackled reply came.
“Yes sir, it won’t get beyond Waterloo Bridge. We’re all set here. Over”
He replaced the radio back on the wheel column of the Targa 31 Fast Patrol Vessel he was piloting. He wondered what the whale would do when it reached the dead end. He knew his commanders were talking to authorities around the world as to why this creature was even here, in his river. Some were saying climate change. Others were saying illegal whalers had chased him there. The only thing that seemed clear was that nobody really knew.
The bull now knew his purpose. At first, it had been to simply keep moving, hoping the pain in his head would dull. His enormous brain, the size of a small car, had recognised the link between his aggressive desires and the pulsing agony. It was as he had prepared to attack and sink a small vessel in sheltered waters that he had noticed the sudden subduing of the pain. He had turned away from the boat in angry confusion, driving himself away. He was used to parasites – the crustaceans that clung to his flippers and flukes, or the remoras that sucked onto his belly. He now recognised the violent urges that swelled up in him as the alien intrusions of such organisms. He fought the unnatural desires with his wavering will-power, seeking out and trying to communicate to the animals he felt compelled to destroy. Now stripped of his strength, there was little more he could do. It was then that he began to sense the net.
Sergeant Mitchell felt the swell underneath as the whale’s giant tail rose out of the water in front of the boat. The animal was putting on a sudden burst of speed, heading straight down the middle of the river. Waterloo Bridge was in full view to the small boats following in its wake, and as Mitchell looked to his left, he could see large crowds gathering on the embankment.
The enormous rippled spine broke the surface of the water. There were cheers and shouts from both sides of the river. The great black head surged through the froth, creating a bow wave as the whale put on more speed. Whistles and camera flashes began to ripple along the banks of the river on both sides. Fathers held their children on their shoulders, pointing and smiling. The cheer rose as one, as an enormous snort thundered out of the blowhole, followed by a jet of mist that rose seven feet into the air. Then it disappeared below the water’s surface.
The bull spread out its flippers wide as it tilted its body and glided into a graceful turn. He sang a last and pitiful song knowing there would be no answer. The very edge of one fin gently stroked against the muddy bottom of the river as he propelled himself upwards with powerful thrusts of his tail. With a final and well-timed flick of his flukes, he shot into the air. His head burst from the water, his body rigid and working hard to gain height and momentum. Then gravity turned against him and his mass, slowing his ascent to the point he seemed to hang in mid-air. He began to twist and fall backwards.
The crowd had little time to react to the enormous creature as its shadow fell across them. They hadn’t expected it to breach so close to the embankment. They watched, unable to move as its great eye moved over the crowd. Those closest felt a wave of sadness sweep over them as they understood its action. The whale crashed down over the concrete rail, rolling forward through the snack and souvenir stand at the entrance to the London Eye. Water streamed down the sides of its body. Its own weight was already killing it, crushing the heart and lungs that would usually be protected from its bulk suspended in water.
As Sergeant Mitchell circled close to the bank, children on the shoulders of their fathers cried. The crowd surged backwards as wonder turned to horror. They turned away from the spectacle they had turned out to see, hurt and embittered by an event they could have never imagined. As families comforted each other, little did they know it would be a poignant yet unheeded warning.
From his booth at the beachhead’s car park, Tory had an almost perfect view of the girls as they stretched out on their beach towels. The small town of Binalong Bay was one of Tasmania’s most beautiful stretches of coastline, with crystal blue waters and diamond white sand, but even he got bored of that view after a while. That was not the case today. He had let them park for free, their flirtatious smiles and pleadings not lost on him for long. A blonde, brunette and a redhead all in one jeep, it was as if his fantasies were all coming true. And now he was getting his reward. The sand was hot and it hadn’t taken them long to get uncomfortable. The good thing about the hard, quartz crystals was that it really did get everywhere. The coarse granules quickly became unwelcome distractions to the warm sunshine and the sound of breakers. The bikini tops had soon be loosened and then finally discarded one by one. He was fairly sure the redhead was giving him a show as she leaned her head back, her frizzy hair falling over her shoulders. Now whenever she laughed or moved, the white flesh of her chest flashed pleasingly in his direction. The salty air had made her nipples hard and erect. This was definitely more his idea of a view.
If only the damn seal would shut up, he thought. At its eastern-most peninsula, the beach ended in a rocky outcrop. It went some way out to sea, but it met both the beach and the car park along its perimeter. The day before, a lone bull southern elephant seal had hauled itself out onto the shore and was now bellowing regularly and very loudly, much to his annoyance. There was a breeding colony on Macquarie Island, but they were rare visitors here. And the bull was an unwelcome one as far as Tory was concerned. He returned to watching the girls.
The elephant seal stopped his bellows, rising up onto his rear. As he flopped down, he swivelled back towards the water, his gaze fixed on its surface with a quiet focus. The bull shuffled forward, dragging its bulk over the rocks with a blubbery wriggle. It dipped its head again towards the water, as if listening. The seal let his weight pull him forward and plunged head first into the cool water. The transformation from unbalanced, lumbering land animal to lithe and graceful sea creature was instantaneous with the mere touch of the waves. The bull eased forward with a few flicks of his hind flipper-like feet, propelling his 7,300lb bulk through the water with lazy ease. He drifted motionless with the current as he focused on the dark silhouette approaching out of the deeper water.
The great white shark was a female, just less than twenty feet in length. She was cruising sedately and made her way past the motionless elephant seal in a slow sweep. Her great mouth was open as she swam, her gleaming and deadly dentition on show. Each triangular tooth was just over two inches long and had several replacements growing within the jaw behind them. She sank deeper, hugging the reef line and seeking the darkness where her svelte shape wouldn’t be seen.
Tory smiled as the girls threw back their towels and playfully kicked sand at each other as they made their way into the breakers. They touched the water with joyful, gentle caresses of their fingertips, rubbing it over their skin to free them of the gritty residue of the sand and the scorching kisses of the sun. Soon they stood in water up to their midriffs, laughing together and enjoying the coolness.
The redhead was the first to break away, pushing herself off into deeper water. Tory’s disappointment at the girl’s bare chest slipping beneath the surface was made up for as he caught a momentary glimpse of her curved behind, porpoising above the waves as she kicked and thrashed her way through the water. The others were soon chasing after her. Tory leaned back in his chair, putting his feet up onto the narrow counter of the booth as he waited for their glorious return from the water, and the slow, inevitable walk back up the beach to their towels. It would be worth the wait. He didn’t notice the absent bellows of the elephant seal now.
The great white turned in the water in an arc that seemed benign but was cloaked in speed and purpose. Her powerful tail moved her out from the sheltered corridors of the reef with a few quick beats that thrust her forward into open water. She dipped her snout and curved her spine as her powerful senses became flooded by the electrical impulses resonating towards her through the water. Miniscule elements of blood and urine teased at her olfactory tract and the static discharge of three pumping hearts sounded out both the path and distance to her prey. She accelerated, her dorsal fin just cutting a fine spray above the water as she swam towards the source.
Tory noticed the streak of greenish black as the triangular fin momentarily rose above the surface from the corner of his eye. He sat bolt upright, watching the water for a further sign of movement or for a shape to take form. He lifted his binoculars to his eyes and scanned back and forth over the water. He stopped when he came to the girls, who were looking curiously towards where he thought he’d seen the movement too. They were obviously bothered by it, as they seemed to be making their way back out of the water. He focused his gaze on the surf, holding his breath as he did. Something in his gut told him something just wasn’t right. Suddenly, the redhead jerked sideways and disappeared beneath the water. As Tory watched in horror, a red slick began to colour the churning waves to a pinkish hue. He grabbed the first aid pack from the shelf and sprang out of the door in a sprint towards the beach.
The great fish rolled onto her side as she swallowed the leg, cut through just below the knee and circled round again towards the girl it had just attacked. The redhead resurfaced, screaming in terror at her friends as they swam away in panic. As adrenalin flooded into her system, she became silent as her body went into shock. She felt no pain as her trembling fingers searched for the wound beneath the red veil of her own blood clouding the water. She screamed again as she tried to kick out with her left leg, only to find her hand brushing against the soft stump and trailing, tattered flesh the shark had left behind. She closed her eyes as the three foot high conical fin surfaced beside her and cruised past. When she opened them again, she watched it streak away as it headed for the other two girls.
Tory stopped in his tracks as he watched the blonde rise up out of the ocean, the shark hitting her from beneath, so her legs straddled either side of its open mouth. She writhed, opening her mouth to release a horrible and unnatural high-pitched scream. The sound stopped abruptly as the fish closed its terrible jaws, severing the girl’s legs and midriff from her torso, as its shot-glass sized teeth came together like scissor blades. A thrash of its tail propelled it beneath the waves again as it took the blonde’s upper half into its maw, gulping in quick muscular spasms to coax the remains down its throat. As its eyes rolled back from their protective sheaths, it accelerated forward again, closing on the brunette with vicious and devastating speed.
Tory was knee deep in the surf as his arms stretched out for the brunette as he began to wade towards her. His fingertips just touched hers for a brief moment, before she was jerked backwards with such force that she fell across the green-tipped snout of the shark, its jaws closed on her flailing right leg just above the ankle. As the fish caught the scent of the blood in the water, it was spurred instinctively into action, its throat muscles working hard to compress and suck the prey into its mouth. The girl had already stopped screaming before she disappeared below the surf.
Tory stumbled backwards, falling out of the water onto the moist sand. He glanced to his left further down the beach where he saw something in the water. As he realised what it was, he pulled himself up again, fighting off the wave of panic that threatened to consume him. He half-stumbled, half ran, as he splashed through the breakers to drag the unconscious redhead from the water. He trembled as he stepped back onto the beach, watching the greenish grey fin cut back and forth through the waves only ten feet or so from the sand. He quickly pulled the pale girl further up the beach. Without hesitating he flung open the first aid pack and grabbed a cravat bandage, folding it into a bandana-like strip. He quickly tied it in an overhand knot above the severed leg and fished out a marker pen, securing it with another loop. He began to twist it in ever tightening turns to make a tourniquet. As the bleeding began to slow and finally stop, he grabbed more bandages and wrapped them round the makeshift dressing to hold it in place. It was then that he saw movement out of the corner of his eye.
Tory spun round to see the lumbering, flopping form of the bull elephant seal coming out of the sea straight towards him and the unconscious girl. It bellowed furiously and rose up on its hindquarters in a defensive posture. Tory scooped up the girl in his arms and stumbled his way towards the sloping path that led to the car park and his booth. He could hear the shuffling and surprisingly fast progress of the seal as it followed him. He made it to the top of the path panting and out of breath, and he almost fell through the open doorway of the booth as he reached it. His strength stayed with him long enough to put the girl down in the seat and lift what was left of her left leg onto the narrow counter. He picked up the phone on the wall and punched in 000 for the emergency services. Then he heard it.
The blubbery slap of the elephant seal’s stomach against the hard concrete was almost comical, as was the gargled, flatulent sounding grunts it made as it covered the ground. Tory instinctively slammed the door to the booth shut and bolted it, just as the whole structure quivered as it received a glancing blow from the animal. Tory peered out of the window, only to find himself meeting the maddened gaze of the bull through the glass. Its bloodshot eyes shone like large black marbles, and in them he saw its rage and fury. It slammed its chest and muzzle against the glass, shattering it and showering Tory with the shards. But although the seal could just about lift its head up and over the window frame lip, Tory had retreated far enough inside to be out of reach.
The bull made a huffing sound as it turned away and fell back onto its stomach. It shuffled away, only to stop beside the open top jeep the girls had arrived in. A low growl rumbled in its throat as it rose up and slammed itself down onto the bonnet of the car. It slithered off, revealing the dents and welts its 7,300lb bulk had left. Another slam smashed the headlight, followed by another that buckled the radiator. Tory watched mystified as the bull used its bulk like a sledgehammer against the car, not even pausing when blood began to pour from open wounds on its bulbous trunk. As the front suspension gave way, the seal at last seemed satisfied and shuffled off back down the path. As Tory heard the sirens of the nearing ambulance, he watched the bull slip back into the surf and disappear into the waves. He had no knowledge of the whale that had breached the banks of the Thames the day before, and he had no idea of what was yet to come.
The U.S.S Desperado glided silently through the dark waters, maintaining a depth of 650 feet. On the surface above rolled waves of clear blue and turquoise. The tourists lining the beaches of nearby Bermuda had no idea that one of the newest submarines in the U.S Navy was navigating its way past the island chain. At 377 feet, the Virginia class vessel’s stealthy and silent manoeuvring was even more impressive than its simple presence, a shadow in the depths that blended into its watery surroundings perfectly.
Lieutenant Cross sat in the Captain’s chair of the Wellcraft 340 Coastal sports fishing boat, casually glancing at the numerous screens fitted to the console on the deck and linked to the surveillance and communications gear that filled the holds, normally reserved for hauls of fish. He caught the sound of a slapping splash coming from the port side. He stood up and leaned over, smiling at what greeted him. The bronze coloured skin of Orion, a three-year old Californian sea lion, flashed in the turquoise water. Her snout broke the surface again and she flipped effortlessly onto her back, gazing at him expectantly and letting out a short bark in anticipation. Cross chuckled and took a fish from the bucket and threw it to her. She caught it easily and dived beneath the surface with her prize.
Cross used the opportunity to check the camera and harness. The view was perfect and the camera was still in position, on the centre of her back and facing her head. Everything Orion saw, he would be able to see too. Colour and focus were sharp, despite the complicated series of turns the sea lion was now performing. Orion was his favourite of the group and despite her disability, also the smartest in his opinion. He leaned over and banged the side of the boat loudly. He knew she wouldn’t be able to hear him, but she would be able to pick up on the vibrations as they echoed out through the water. A few moments later, her snout broke the surface again close to the boat and he found himself smiling as she barked excitedly and looked up at him with dark brown eyes full of mischief and anticipation. Cross straightened up and gave her a thumbs up with both hands, then moved his left fist in a series of circles until it touched the right. Orion barked and dived beneath the surface, recognising the command to follow.
Cross used hand signals based on sign language with all the animals, but Orion absolutely depended on it. He had first come across her in San Diego Bay as he conducted exercises with the Marine Mammal Program. She just started showing up, often coming right alongside the zodiac whenever he was performing open water exercises with the team animals. It got to the point that whenever he saw the red and white frontage of the Hotel del Coronado, made famous for its role in the movie ‘some like it hot’, he would start looking for the ambitious yet emaciated sea lion. It wasn’t unusual for some of the wild residents of the bay to take an interest in the exercises, especially if they were working close to the wildlife refuge to the south, but she seemed more driven than the others. She’d harass the animals he was working with so they’d give up their fish, or bark incessantly until he fed her. Her condition and behaviour had eventually led him to acquiring permission to capture her and bring her into the program. When he did, it didn’t take long for him to realise that the sea lion was profoundly deaf. That should have been the end of it, and her career with the Marine Mammal Program, but he had seen something in her from the start and he decided to make her a special project. And to a certain extent, his hard work had paid off. She couldn’t take part in some of the more complex operations that relied on underwater sound commands, but she had a place on the team.
Her role on the current task was to help observe its execution from close quarters. Orion was speeding through the water now and as Cross monitored the screen and her progress, he saw the three other sea lions ahead of her. Each was wearing a neck harness that held a camera to one side of their head, and a listening device on the other. The harness and the listening device were both new items of equipment, being trialled during the operation. They looked a little like one side of a set of earmuffs from afar. Soft, coral coloured tendrils cushioned the Buckhannon Marine-Mic over the left ear of the sea lions. Attached to the keel of the Wellcraft was a transmitter that would send out Cross’s instructions through the water. Cross brought up the individual displays on the Panasonic FZ-G1 Toughpad he was holding. The feed was filtered into four streams, one for each sea lion. By tapping on an individual column, he could send separate instructions to each sea lion, or send group commands, at least to the three that could hear and respond to them. It was a real breakthrough for their long range open water missions.
The Navy had been using animals as part of their Marine Mammal Program for almost seven decades. Despite popular conspiracy theories, the animals had never been used in acts of aggression. Their primary role had always been detection and rescue operations, as well as various research roles. From the streamlined design of vessels to the ongoing development of acoustic detection systems, the Marine Mammal Program had contributed to many breakthroughs in such research. But today, they were trying something new.
The Desperado was using her state-of-the-art sonar equipment to search for a wreck that had never been found, despite the rumours that it had been there for nearly eighty years. The story went that the Japanese frigate Wokou had appeared out of the mist one stormy night during World War II, only noticed by a few of the islanders. By dawn she was gone, all but some of her debris that washed up on shore with the morning tide. Popular belief had always claimed that she had simply become another victim of the infamous Bermuda Triangle.
Navy records showed otherwise. Commandos based on the island, who were part of a transition team turning a British Army munitions fort into a new Atlantic submarine base, had spotted the Wokou, despite the heavy fog. It had been suspected she had travelled through the Panama Canal with assistance from the axis-friendly President Arias. The attack at Pearl Harbor was still fresh in the American memory and the Wokou’s mission was unknown. Using a small inflatable craft, the commandos had approached the frigate and used the deep fog bank to their advantage, attaching limpet mines and scuttling the ship before most of its crew had even time to stir in their bunks.
Once the wreck was detected, the sea lions were going to be directed to search for unexploded mines and anti-submarine weapons that might be a danger. If anything, it was a good training exercise for both the crew of the Desperado and for the animals. It was the second part of the exercise that Cross didn’t like. If mines or other explosive devices were found, two dolphins were going to be sent to the wreck with their own limpet mines to destroy what remained of the wreck in a controlled setting. Although this was still classed as a defensive exercise, he had already considered how easy it would be for the animals to apply their training to a more aggressive setting. Too easily, he thought.
Captain Marcus Brody gave the order to stop engines. The heavy reverberations ceased almost immediately as a final ripple of energy echoed down the length of the U.S.S Desperado, and she drifted to a silent halt in the water.
“Confirm report,” Brody snapped at the radar station.
“Report confirmed, sir,” came the reply, “she’s 500 yards off the starboard bow.”
“Okay,” nodded Brody as he relaxed a little, “time to let the circus come to town.”
The lieutenant smiled and picked up the radio.
Cross sighed and tapped the access codes into the tablet. The four feeds on the display blipped to the live streams, each providing footage from the back of a different sea lion. Cross quickly checked the bearings of the four animals and entered an individual code for the three ‘active’ members of the team. As Cross used the modified directional arrows and specialist command buttons for the app, a series of clicks and buzzes were transmitted to the sea lions via the Marine-Mic. Once he had them all together, he could send directions to them in unison, all except Orion, who knew only to follow until she returned to the surface. He punched in a set of commands and then looked up over the starboard side in time to see all four break the surface in perfect symmetry. He tapped the directional arrows again and the sea lions dived one after the other into deeper water.
It didn’t take long for them to find the wreck. Within a few minutes, the blurred edges of the ship were coming into view on Orion’s camera. 600 feet was well within the sea lions normal diving range, but the light at that depth was on the cusp of the twilight zone and diminished further the deeper they went. Cross clicked a bulb-shaped symbol on the software’s control panel, and small spotlights on each of the harnesses blinked on simultaneously. Hannah, a still relatively young and playful character, was taken by surprise by her sudden illumination, and she cart-wheeled a few times before she returned to the others. Cross smiled to himself and shook his head. Hannah was fun, but not all that bright, so he decided to use Holly for the search inside the ship.
Holly had experience wreck diving, and wouldn’t be startled by the confined spaces and shadows. Cross sent a signal to the other sea lions to hold the position whilst he directed Holly forward. Orion started after her, but then slowed and drifted again when she realised the others weren’t following. Cross was impressed with the initiative she showed sometimes. Holly flicked her hindquarters effortlessly, propelling her over the crippled bow of the Wokou. She drifted momentarily along the port side, pausing at the truck-sized hole that had been torn in the ship’s side by the explosives. Cross watched the monitor as he tapped more instructions into the pad. Holly hesitated for a second, but then propelled herself forward into the ship’s interior.
Now, the spotlight on the harness was the only source of light. The explosives had opened a hole into one of the storage holds of the frigate, and it became immediately apparent why the ship had sunk so quickly and why so much damage had been done. The storage hold was part of the ship’s magazine, containing at least twenty contact mines. Cross guessed at least two had gone off as a result of the explosion, noticing the warped metal on the floor, in two distinct blast zones close to what remained of the wall. All Holly would have to do is touch one of the protruding rods on any of the intact mines to trigger a similar explosion. Cross quickly punched the recall command into the touch screen and Holly glided out into open ocean again.
Suddenly, the monitors all crackled and lost their picture momentarily. A slight hum emanated from the radio for a second or two, before it and the monitors all came back on. Cross checked everything, baffled. He put it down to a power surge and checked the equipment over to be sure. All four feeds showed the distant image of the U.S.S Desperado as she began to ascend towards the surface, and away from the Wokou’s explosive cargo. He wondered why the sea lions were suddenly so interested in it. They had seen the sub and many others like it before. Orion was the only one who seemed unbothered, turning away and looking back towards the surface. Cross checked his watch. Their dive time was close to six minutes now, and although Californian sea lions could stay under for as long as twenty, they rarely took dives longer than five. Cross had always exercised great care in not over-extending dive times, keeping them as regular and as natural as operations allowed. He was beginning to get concerned.
Cross got up and walked to the back of the boat. He picked up the red, white and blue barred Charlie signal flag and waved it at the second boat behind his, a Scarab 35 Offshore Tournament. He watched through binoculars as the signal was returned and he went back to the monitors. Priest and Monk, a pair of male bottle-nosed dolphins streaked past Orion, showing up on her camera for a brief moment. Their speed was remarkable. They wore similar harnesses to the sea lions, but also carried rods in their mouths with a limpet mine suspended from each end. That made four mines in total.
Cross continued to watch the monitors. The sea lions were beginning to get bored it seemed. Orion was heading to the surface, whilst Holly was drifting up towards his boat. Lee, the other sea lion seemed to be heading towards the other craft in a similar lazy ascent. He was beginning to get bored himself and he tapped the general recall command into the tablet. The sea lions showed no response to the command, but before he could worry about that, something else made him sit bolt upright with shock.
Monk and Priest were flicking back and forth over the bow of the U.S.S Desperado, spiralling around the submarine’s circumference with ease and gradually getting closer and closer. Cross watched in horror as Monk suddenly darted forward and attached both of his limpet mines to the hull of the submarine. One of Cross’s first objections to the exercise was becoming a reality before his very eyes. The main reason why the Navy had never used the Marine Mammal Program for aggressive operations was because the animals could not tell the difference between enemy and friendly craft. He reached for the radio, about to demand a weapons-hold status, when he was distracted again by Priest as he rocketed up to Holly and Lee, drifting alongside them upside down. He watched with disbelief as the sea lions snapped into action, each taking a mine in their mouths, breaking them away from the rod and shooting up towards the surface.
It didn’t seem to register as he watched the sea lions attach a mine to the bottom of each boat on the tablet. Cross had trained each animal himself and written the program from start to finish. This wasn’t learnt behaviour, it was something new. He had never seen the like of it before. The levels of organisation they were showing were unprecedented. Cross came to his senses fractionally too late, registering the tiny countdown clock in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen. 4…3…2…he closed his eyes.
The mines exploded simultaneously. The Wellcraft and Scarab sports boats were blown apart instantly by the 8lbs of explosive in the devices attached to their hulls. Cross and the small crew on the support boat were all killed instantly. The mines on the U.S.S Desperado cracked open her hull, instantly flooding the bridge and letting seawater into numerous compartments at once, on several decks. There had been no warning, so they had been unable to take any preventative measures. No call for help was made; no order was given to blow the emergency ballast tanks to take them to the surface. Instead, the crippled submarine spun in a slow arc towards the seabed, spewing debris and bodies as it went.
Watching from above, Orion saw the other sea lions join the dolphins as the submarine passed out of view. She lingered for a few moments more, but then turned and headed in the opposite direction towards the open ocean.
Le Renard rose and fell with each gentle caress of the swells within her private harbour. Over the years, Stede had come to know the subtle sounds she made as her cedar and teak timbers called out for the ocean they longed for. He often imagined the yacht singing the sad lonely song of a captive to its partner the free and raging ocean on the other side of the harbour wall. She served as his floating laboratory faithfully, but a boat was meant to go to sea and it had been a long time since she had raised a sail in anger.
He rolled over on the king-sized bed and tenderly caressed the other woman in his life with a stroke of his fingers. Hailey was beautiful. He knew it at a level that he couldn’t recognise. He let his hand glide over the smooth caramel coloured skin along her arm. Her hair fell in natural curls down to her shoulders, and always reminded him of the deep, dark colour of a redwood tree, like dark chocolate with a tinge of cherry. Somehow it always smelled of cinnamon. She opened her eyes, which were almost a perfect match to the rich colour of her hair. She smiled as she straightened out a little under the sheets, but closed her eyes again as she clung to the snug remnants of sleep.
“Have we earned a day off yet?” she asked, creeping closer to him under the sheets as her hands explored and found his waist.
Stede paused, knowing how he’d like to answer. “Not this month,” he smiled sympathetically, as reality began to tug away at his desire to stay put.
He kissed her again, and then pulled the sheets from underneath her, spinning her over to the other side of the bed. She threw a pair of her discarded panties at him in mock annoyance. He stood up, pulling on a pair of sand coloured shorts as he did so.
“You look like Robert Shaw in From Russia with Love,” Hailey exclaimed with a giggle.
“So who does that make you, the old woman with the knife in her shoe?”
“Hah, I’m definitely more Jinx Johnson wouldn’t you say?” She folded her leg over the sheets and turned on her side, revealing the curves of her bare waist and breasts.
Stede raised an eyebrow as he lingered once more.
“And that was pure Roger Moore,” Hailey called after him.
“When you’re quite finished Miss Moneypenny,” he replied sarcastically, finally heading aft to the galley.
He peered out of the mahogany-set windows towards the stylish beach house. Although slightly elevated, it was split over several levels, and its angular white walls to the front gave way to clear window panels, blue steel frames, and hardwood decking at the back that looked out to the sweeping sea views and the glass-walled swimming pool. He hesitated, not wanting to tarnish the spotless galley with an attempt at breakfast. They had only stayed on the boat after finishing late the night before. The bottle of rosé Veuve Clicquot Hailey had found had clinched the decision. He opened the fridge door and smiled as he peered inside. Several containers, each containing a different specimen made up the entire contents. Not a trace of food was evident. He sighed with relief. She might not get to sea much, but Le Renard was the tightest kept yacht in Bermuda and would remain so this morning. That was one thing he’d taken with him from the Navy.
“Hello bubblehead, hello sailor,” said a raspy voice from the other side of the galley.
“Morning Mojo,” Stede replied with a smile.
Hailey’s magnificent and full-sized great green macaw, Mojo, ruffled his feathers and raised the crest on top of his head a little, a behaviour that signified joy and contentment. Stede walked over to the perch and took a walnut from a bowl on the counter. Mojo shrieked with pleasure and took the nut from Stede with an outstretched claw, hooking it into his enormous black beak, where he crushed it with obvious glee.
Hailey appeared in the doorway, wearing one of his island-cotton white shirts, with the sleeves rolled up to her elbows. She folded her arms as she leant against the frame. Other than the shirt and her reclaimed panties, the only other thing she was wearing was a smug smile.
“What?” Stede enquired with a laugh.
“Either your presents are getting kinkier, or you’re in serious trouble,” she explained.
Stede looked at her in confusion.
“There’s a man in uniform standing on the jetty. Navy I think,” she nodded towards the porthole.
Stede lowered his head and peered through it. Sure enough, an American Navy seaman was standing on the jetty. He seemed nervous and hesitant.
“Better put some clothes on then,” Stede shrugged, grabbing a dirty T-shirt from the floor.
Hailey was pulling on some shorts of her own and quickly buttoned up the shirt, eager to find out what their visitor wanted. Stede climbed the short set of steps that led to the deck and popped the hatch. They both scrambled out, and he glanced behind quickly at Hailey. She was smirking, clearly proud of their unkempt and sleep-stained appearance. Her mischievous side was something he had grown addicted to at Harvard, and it showed no signs of abatement, despite the years now in between.
“Professor Buckhannon?” the seaman asked.
“Yes!” Stede and Hailey chimed together, rather pleasurably.
“Err, Professor Stede Buckhannon,” the seaman added.
“If you need to be told which one of us that is, I think you’ve probably gone as far as you can in the Navy,” Stede smirked. “That’s me, what can I do for you?”
“To be frank sir, I don’t know. Your clearance is higher than mine. I’ve just been asked to escort you and your wife to a meeting. I like your boats though.”
Stede glanced at the black, red and silver livery of the Donzi 35 ZR powerboat that sat the other side of the jetty, across from the Le Renard.
“That one’s just a toy,” Stede grinned. “This is a real boat. A Spirit 74.”
“Both are toys compared to what I work with sir,” the seaman replied with a grin.
“We have clearance?” Hailey enquired, pinching Stede to get him out of her way.
“Yes ma’am,” the seaman nodded.
“Give us a few moments to scrub up a little,” Hailey smiled. “We’ll meet you round the front of the house. I presume you brought a car?”
“Yes ma’am. Admiral Reese said he’d give me $50 if I could get you into it.”
“Admiral Reese knows me too well, we’ll be following you down I’m afraid,” Stede said with a smirk.
“In case we need to make a fast getaway?” Hailey asked in a giggled whisper as they stepped onto the jetty and made their way towards the house.
Hailey laughed as they walked out of the house. It was the first time in as long as she could remember that they had both looked so official. She was wearing a soft, white linen full-length skirt with a matching short-sleeved jacket and a rust coloured cotton blouse. Stede had gone for a cream, three-quarter length suit and a white linen shirt. They both wore smart, brown leather sandals. They had both been in Bermuda long enough to have forgotten the last time they had worn socks.
Stede opened the windowless door of the car. The jet black Shelby Cobra 427 sat low to the ground compared to the Jeep the seaman was in, and Stede had to raise his hand high to let him know they were ready to go. Both men started their engines, but the big block V8 of the Cobra drowned out the diesel lump of the Navy runabout. Stede gave Hailey a knowing smile as he slipped on the tawny coloured sunglasses from his jacket pocket.
“Grow up Maverick,” she sighed.
From the remote beach house they made their way over the hill towards the town of Somerset. As they rolled down the road after the Jeep, they could see the mismatch of shanty huts of corrugated steel against the lemon walled, terracotta trimmed villas that rose above them, most of which were in private, gated communities. It reminded Stede why he had wanted to live out of town in the first place. Most of the villas were owned by rich, albeit tasteless couples and families. They had their own schools, stores, bars and restaurants. The irony was that if you wanted to eat well, it was the local markets and street stalls you headed for. The nightlife in that part of town almost always spilled over into the early hours of the morning too without any complaints, but you had to be an islander to know that. And nobody living behind steel gates was really an islander.
Hailey shot Stede an inquisitive glance from the passenger seat as they drove. She knew that the bravado and cocky mocking were all for show, but his quietness betrayed his distraction. He was mulling over the request for their attendance, just as she was. Strands of his thick, blonde hair were ruffled by the wind as it passed over their heads, and she knew that behind the dark lenses, his piercing blue eyes were searching for the sea. They darted to the horizon at every crest. He hated to be out of sight of it, and he became taught and tense whenever it dropped from view. It made sense that they lived on an island less than a mile wide at most points. When they had first moved here, his near lack of tan was illustrative of how much time he spent under the water and with his work. Even she couldn’t help laughing when she learnt the local children’s nickname for him, the paleface professor. She had quickly made it her goal to coax him into the sun long enough to make him look a little more native.
They were soon passing over the bridge that linked Somerset Island to the main island of Bermuda. The nice thing about any car journey on the islands was that it was always short. You could walk the entire length of the chain in four hours. Stede turned both his head and the car sharply as the Annex Naval Air Force Base came into view on the other side of the bridge.
They drew up to a security booth, where they were kept waiting. He sensed Hailey’s alarm when two armed guards walked over and stood in front of the car. He eyed them coolly. Both were young, and his own menacing gaze soon made the man nearest him look away. He leaned over and squeezed Hailey’s hand.
“Don’t worry, I’ve yet to come across a thousand-yard stare that can match the one I gained in the SBS.”
“This is why I hate government work,” she exclaimed. “All the pissing contests.”
The guard was called away to the booth, but quickly returned, brandishing photo I.D cards. Stede looked at them and handed Hailey hers with a knowing smile.
“That’s why we were made to wait,” he explained. Both cards bore their likenesses, clearly taken whilst they had been in the car. He noticed the barcode on the back, suggesting it was also a key-card as well as an I.D. He wondered where they’d need to use it.
They followed the jeep through the security gate and headed straight across the runway, approaching a hangar on the far side of the base. Hailey smirked as she noticed Stede relax and let out an unconscious breath as the ocean came into view again, this time as they overlooked Port Royal Bay. The Jeep stopped outside of the hangar and Stede pulled up alongside.
“If you use your entry card on that entry panel,” the seaman indicated, “you’ll gain access and be received. Good luck.”
“Good luck?” Hailey exclaimed, “why do we need luck?”
“Sorry ma’am,” the seaman exclaimed sheepishly, “I just meant I hope it goes well.”
Hailey shot Stede another glance as they both stepped out of the car. They approached the hangar as the Jeep and driver tore off again across the tarmac. Stede swiped the card through the access panel.
“Good luck professor,” Hailey whispered, as a hiss of gas escaped from a hydraulic hinge on the other side and the door slowly swung open and inwards.
The corridor they found themselves facing was dark, with the only source of light coming from a soft-glowing bulb lantern on the wall much further down. Stede walked quietly forward, with Hailey following behind a little more cautiously. He peered into the darkness, his eyes adapting quickly as they searched for doors and exits as a matter of course. The lingering echo of his footsteps told his ears the real situation just before they were drowned in glaring light from all around. They were in a large and empty hangar. Empty that is, except for a rectangular table where four men sat, all looking at them in silence. Two empty chairs suggested this was the reception they were looking for. Stede didn’t hesitate as he strode towards them and Hailey’s sandals clicked with confident steps from behind. They both knew from working with sharks that it was important not to show fear or hesitancy when in the presence of predators.
As they approached, the four men stood to greet them. Stede noticed that behind the table was a yellow railing that marked a stairway on the other side that led below ground. He knew it almost certainly went to the old WWII sub bays, and he began to ponder why they had been summoned.
“Good to see you Admiral,” Stede grinned with an outstretched hand.
Admiral Reese smiled back and shook his hand warmly, helping Stede feel slightly more at ease.
“Professors, thanks for coming at such short notice. May I introduce Commander Ryan of Naval Intelligence, Commander Gellar of the Marine Mammal Program and Sergeant Phoenix of the Submarine Corps.”
Stede stifled the grin that was about to spread across his face as he considered the similarity of the three men. Whereas the Admiral had short-cropped grey hair and his rather rotund form suggested it had been a while since he had seen anything resembling active duty, the other officers all had cropped black hair, and in their matching sand-coloured uniforms could have been mistaken for brothers. It was one of the reasons why after leaving Z squad of the Special Boat Service and starting Buckhannon Engineering, he had allowed his hair to grow a little long, and was now a little proud of his comparatively unkempt appearance. They all shook hands and took their seats. Commander Ryan was the first to break the silence.
“The famous Bucky Stede,” he grinned. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Admiral Reese shot him a warning glance.
“Apologies,” said Ryan, raising his hands in mock surrender. “But I’m sure the good Professor knows he’s somewhat infamous in the Navy world.”
Stede let the corner of his mouth twist into a soft smile. One that somehow bristled with quiet threat and menace.
“Approximately eighteen hours ago, the U.S.S Desperado, one of our premier subs, sank off the east coast of the island,” explained Sergeant Phoenix. “We need your help in the search and rescue operation. Although we have a team in San Diego en route, we don’t have any mini-subs or suitable craft based here.”
“You want to use the Manta-Wraith?” Hailey asked.
“I know better than to ask to use it,” chimed in the Admiral. “You’d be at the controls, not us.”
“It’s not just that,” added Commander Gellar, “we need both of your expertise.”
“How exactly does the expertise of marine biologists fit into the recovery of a Virginia class nuclear submarine? I presume the Marine Mammal Program isn’t in this room by accident.” Stede remarked coolly.
“You remember your boats,” Reese smiled. “Glad to see your years outside the Navy haven’t slowed you down.”
“Oh it has Admiral, but I’m still fast compared to you American boys,” Stede teased warmly.
“Perhaps we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves.” Ryan interjected. “Frankly, I’m also interested in how the use of some of your equipment, namely the so-called Marine-Mic, might have had a hand in what happened.”
“I see Naval Intelligence is still a contradiction in terms,” Stede stated dryly to the Admiral.
“What are the parameters of the Manta-Wraith’s operation?” Sergeant Phoenix asked.
“You mean beside whether we let it be used or not after that kind of accusation?” Hailey retorted bluntly.
There was an awkward silence or two. Then Admiral Reese sighed.
“My apologies for the lack of information, and our apparent five minute warning, but we only have so much time before this becomes public knowledge, and at the moment I have no answers to give.”
“You mean you don’t know why it sank,” Stede stated in realisation. “But somehow, the Marine Mammal Program was involved in what happened.”
“It’s probably easier if we just show you to be honest,” replied Commander Gellar. “Why don’t you follow me downstairs.”
They all stood up and followed Gellar as he led them to the yellow rail. As they followed it down, Stede and Hailey saw several windows into large enclosed tanks of water. Gellar stopped at the first portal window.
“These are the holding pens we use when we are working with the animals,” he explained. “Perhaps you’d like to take a look?”
Hailey stepped forward immediately and peered through the thick glass. The blue walls of the tank shone in the strong light from the surface above and at the far end she could see the gates that led to the ocean. She could just hear the gentle noise of moving water on the other side of the glass.
She caught the movement out of the corner of her eye, instinctively flinching as the white torpedo-like shape crashed heavily against the glass. The reverberations echoed along the corridor.
“This is Pepper,” explained Commander Gellar. “He’s an eight-year old Beluga whale, whom I have hand fed since he was a calf. I’ve been in the field with him countless times over the last six years and have been involved in every aspect of his training. He’s more loyal to me than a hunting dog but I kid you not, I have no doubt that if I were to jump into the tank with him right now, he’d kill me.”
A second crash against the glass seemed to back up the statement. Admiral Reese stepped up to the glass to peer through, and then turned to look at Stede and Hailey.
“When the Desperado sank, she was taking part in an experimental program with the marine mammals. This behaviour has been evident since that time and we don’t know what to make of it.”
“What on Earth were you doing with them?” Stede exclaimed.
“Nothing that would explain this behaviour, they’re acting on their own instincts somehow. Nothing we’ve seen is anything like what we’ve trained them to do. Just their levels of organisation are staggering.” Gellar explained further.
Stede peered through the glass as he watched the twenty-foot long whale ram the glass again. As he came closer, he noticed the scuffmarks on the other side of the glass from the repeated blows of the animal’s powerful head. He realised the whale was going through this routine every time he saw movement on the other side of the glass.
“How are you feeding them if they’re like this?” Stede pondered aloud.
“That’s what I meant by organisation,” Gellar continued. “We don’t have to. The others are bringing them fish.”
“What?” Stede asked, snapping round.
“We think it’s the dolphins and sea lions that were involved with the Desperado operation. They’re still loose, but they appear to be bringing food to the animals still penned here.”
“That’s remarkable if true,” Hailey exclaimed, a little shocked.
In the next pen, Commander Gellar showed them two Californian sea lions that had struck the hatch door to their enclosure so often, dried blood still stained their muzzle and gums.
“Even they show method in their madness though,” he mused. “Each time, they attack a different part of the door or wall. They’re checking for weaknesses.”
“Let’s return upstairs, now you have more of an idea of the situation,” Reese suggested.
As they all took their places at the table again, Stede and Hailey looked at each other in stunned silence. Hailey was the first one to speak.
“If what you’re saying is true, the behaviour these animals are showing is completely unprecedented.”
“That’s why we need your help,” Reese replied. “We can’t risk one of the loose animals attacking a civilian. It could mean the premature end to the program. We want you to take part in a capture or kill operation with the missing dolphins and sea lions. That’s why we need you and your submersible. We don’t have anything that can match its speed and operation, if what I’m hearing from your father is true.”
“I wondered where you were getting your information from,” Stede realised. “At least he’s still talking to one of us. What did you have in mind?”
“The Desperado is lying in about eight-hundred feet of water,” Ryan stated, rejoining the conversation. “We know from our friends downstairs that the other animals are still in the area. I’m led to believe you have a very accurate dart gun that can be deployed from the Manta-Wraith?”
“That’s right,” Stede grimaced, “it’s an extremely expensive piece of equipment and unique to us.”
“I think our budget might cover it,” Ryan snapped sarcastically.
“Look,” interrupted the Admiral, silencing Ryan with a glance. “We have our own team coming in from San Diego as we say, but we don’t have the equipment or resources to deal with the animals, which is where you come in. Maybe at the same time you can shed some light on this strange behaviour, and reassure Commander Ryan here that none of your equipment could be to blame.”
“It’s a simple communication device, it can’t be,” Hailey replied defensively.
“I’m sure that’s the case, so find me the real answers. As for your compensation, name your price. We need you.”
Stede looked at Hailey for a brief moment, catching her smile.
“When do we start?”
“The San Diego team should be here by this afternoon. Get yourself shipshape,” Reese smiled.
After Stede and Hailey had left, Ryan marched over to the Admiral, a look of angry discontent all too evident on his face.
“I don’t know why you’re pandering to him. Why not take what we need and do it ourselves?”
“Because his father is a Vice-Admiral and Fleet Commander in the British Navy for a start,” explained Reese. “But also out of respect. You’d think twice about messing with a Navy Seal wouldn’t you. Think thrice before messing with Stede Buckhannon, and I’d advise knocking off the Bucky Stede shit if you enjoy breathing without the aid of a ventilator. He was one hell of an officer.” Reese dismissed Ryan and walked away.
“Yeah, which explains the dishonourable discharge and a rap-sheet that reads like a pirate’s résumé,” muttered Ryan to himself in disgust.